East Meets East, North Meets South

K. Sridhar combines traditions from both sides of his family

By Teed Rockwell
India Currents Magazine

April 2001

K. Sridhar has lived his musical life by an important principle: If you’re true to your roots, you will be respected for what you are. One of the reasons this principle has worked so well for him is that, in his case, the roots extend very deep and far. His mother had trained her children in Karnatik classical music, and Sridhar’s brother, K. Shivakumar Shringar, became an accomplished Karnatik violinist. But Sridhar also received training in Hindustani Dhrupad music from the age of five, and eventually devoted his life to playing Hindustani music on the sarod. With a background that was both multicultural and traditional, he acquired both a respect for tradition and an open-mindedness that gave him the courage to be innovative.In his most recent purely classical album, Food for the Soul, Sridhar exhibits both his traditional and his innovative side by performing a Karnatik raga in a very pure Hindustani style. Raga Charukeshee is built on a scale that is not part of the Hindustani Thaat system. The top half is minor, containing komal Sha and Ni (flatted sixth and seventh degrees). But the bottom half is entirely major, which means that it changes radically in mood depending on where you play in the scale. Ali Akbar Khan created a raga in the same scale, which he called Alam Malaya, but the scale is all that the two ragas have in common. Alam Malaya had a five note arohi (upward pattern) and a seven note vakra avarohi (crooked downward pattern). Charukeshee permits any note to be played either upward or downward, which means it has to rely on other factors to give it its distinctive character.

Sridhar ingeniously starts his alap by only using the five notes, which create the top half of the minor scale. The impression he gives is that he’s going to be playing one of the Kanras, for he even uses some of the slow vibratos that are typical of that family of ragas. But when his alap has reached the upper register, he stays within the major half of the scale, and gives the impression that he is playing in a major thaat, such as Khamaj or Bilaval. Only when he picks up speed does he play sequences that include the entire scale, thus revealing its unique nature. The result is three distinct mood changes, which have an impact similar to the modulations from key to key used in Western music.

This effect however, is only a small part of Sridhar’s expressive palette. During the alap (rhythmically free opening), he uses a variety of quiet effects that create dynamic contrasts to the main melody notes. Sometimes he taps out four or five note phrases without plucking the strings at all. Other times, he uses slides that mark numerous distinct notes as they slowly decay, the vibrato varying in both speed and depth like a mournful cry. He uses a gamak technique (wide fast vibrato) during slow teental which actually seems to make the note get louder as it continues to vibrate. His sophisticated use of laya (variations in tempo against the underlying beat) requires the tabla player to do everything he can to simply hold the beat down. My favorite of these laya variations is a two minute barrage of amazingly fast trills, which are so perfectly controlled they seem paradoxically to be almost slow and stately, like the vibrating wings of a floating dragonfly. And he has one technique which I believe he invented: He keeps his fifth fingernail on his left hand almost an inch long, so he can actually play chikare (strums) with either hand.

Sridhar also has a history of working with an Arabian instrument closely related to the sarod — the oud. At first glance, the two instruments seem remarkably similar. Both have fretless fingerboards, and are played with flat picks. The main difference between the modern sarod and the modern oud is that today sarods have steel fretboards and metal strings, while ouds have wooden fretboards and gut strings. But even as early as a generation ago, sarods also had wooden fretboards and gut strings, and those sarods probably sounded very much like oud. Today, however, the sarod and the oud have both matured into noticeably different instruments that nevertheless share a common ancestry. Imagine a steel string guitar playing with a nylon string guitar (Andre Segovia and Leo Kotke, perhaps?), and you may get some sense of how these two instruments can highlight the differences in each other precisely because they are so similar.

Sridhar’s first collaboration with an oud player was a completely improvised album with Palestinian Adel Salemeh on Peter Gabriel’s Womad label. His second Arab fusion album, East Meets East, features a larger Arabian ensemble called Arabandi, that includes oud player Taiser Elias (who doubles on violin) along with vocals, Persian ney (flute) and Arabian percussion. There are many similarities between Indian and Arabic music that reflect their commingling during the Mughal invasion of India — the unusual time signatures, the emphasis on monophonic melodies that rely heavily on microtones. But the similarities are most obvious on Bint Elshalabia, the opening piece on East Meets East. It starts with a sarod solo, which sounds like an oud, until the real oud comes in and doubles the melody. When I compare the oud and sarod solos on that cut, I can only speculate as to who learned what from whom — the sarod sounds so natural combined with the Arabian drums and ney, and the oud playing has a rhythmic sophistication that I (perhaps falsely) thought was unique to Indian music. And without the liner notes I would never have guessed that the pieces Dawn and Hope are original compositions by Sridhar, and not traditional Arabian tunes.

Sridhar has clearly learned several of the traditional Middle Eastern melodies note for note, for he plays them in tight unison with the violin, the oud, and the ney. And when he solos on those melodies, the techniques he learned from his Karnatik and Hindustani teachers blend in so naturally that he seems to have been playing this style of music all of his life. Given the long history of cultural exchange between the Arab and Indian cultures, in a certain sense, he has been. But it is inspiring to see the process of separating and recombining continue into the next millennium — refreshing both traditions, as it has so often in the past.

For more information, please visit Sridhar’s website at www.sridhar.org.

Article submitted with permission from the author, Teed Rockwell.